Wednesday, 17 January 2007

how right is she?

Pippa Jones' The Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market (Cambridge, 2005) gives a good overview of some European and Commonwealth right wing parties over the last few decades. Nothing earth-shattering, but the reviewers loved it for its poise, detachment and contribution to the puzzle of the radical right's dramatically varying fortunes in similar nations.

[R]emarkably little evidence supports many... popular myths about the reasons for their success, for example the claim that radical right have advanced strongly in societies with rampant unemployment or strong waves of immigration, or that they appeal most strongly to socially disadvantaged sectors of the electorate. Nor... [do] radical right fortunes depend primarily upon where other mainstream center-right and center-left parties locate themselves across the ideological spectrum, or that charismatic leaders are vital to their success. (5)

This is actually pretty clear once you look at the sweep of countries that Norris painstakingly examines. Sweden has negligible radical right influence despite have much higher levels of immigration than Norway, where the radical right have taken 15% of votes in the last two major elections. Britain and Germany, the two European countries with the most immigrants - and don't forget Germany's unemployment - have very weak radical right parties. The media's interest in the BNP's success in Oldham and Nick Griffin's recent trial is out of all proportion to their influence. Meanwhile, Switzerland's radical right party is the major player in the current coalition government with more than 26% of the electorate behind them, and the Swiss are hardly short of a few bob.

Alongside these harder facts of votes cast in given countries and electoral rules (which in some cases conspire to block smaller parties of whatever persuasion from entering the chamber) she sets comparative social survey data about political and policy opinions, social attitudes and the behaviour of the parties' leadership. All fascinating stuff, if a little dry in places.

What seemed very odd to me was her attempts to force Ross Perot and the Reform Party into the same box as racist and anti-immigrant parties. Perot was a quixotic billionaire who contested the US Presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, doing surprisingly well considering the hold the Democrats and Republicans have over there. As far as I remember the media here in the UK never portrayed him as 'radical right', xenophobic or anything of the sort. And even in Norris' book there only seems to be guilt-by-association. Her rhetoric is plain when she comes to discuss those elections. Having pointed out that Perot could be regarded as more of a "center-right... one-man show" and had little in common she continues,

Nevertheless Perot emphasized many classically populist, antiestablishment, and 'outsider' themes in his campaign, adopting folksy appeals and simplistic slogans designed to attract 'the little man', and focusing mainly upon the need to reduce the size of government and levels of taxation, with the anti-NAFTA theme tapped into fears of 'foreigners' stripping away American jobs and companies. (239)

What is the "nevertheless" doing?! If this is the best evidence against Perot, what is he doing in this study? The closest Norris can come to actually accusing him of anything is in relation to NAFTA - which is not exactly something every US Trades Union is loving, either.

Every now and then (eg. p.246) she throws in some asides about how opposing gay marriage or abortion is a sign of being associated with the radical right. This may be me being over-sensitive, or it may demonstrate that even in the driest of sociological texts the presence and biases of the author are never far away.